Just over a month ago, I posted a picture Jack Kirby had drawn of Ally Sloper, whom I described as “probably the first recurring comics character”.
Sloper first appeared in Judy in 1867. Poking around the Early Comics Archive maintained by Andy Konky Kru at BugPowder, it is possible to identify several earlier candidates. I was aware of Richard Doyle’s Brown, Jones and Robinson, but had somehow got it into my head that it was only published as a book (like Töpffer’s M Vieuxbois). But no, it was a series published in Punch in 1850 and then collected in 1854.
The Early Comics Archive also has several adventures of one Mr Briggs, by John Leech, dating from 1850 and 1851, more of Leech’s Tom Noddy from 1855, and four stories of Mr Peter Piper by John Tenniel from 1853.
Was any of these the first recurring comics character? I’m not confident enough to say. Anyway, this is reducing art history to the level of the Guiness Book of Records. Appreciate them for what they are. Tenniel’s art on Peter Piper is particularly enjoyable, mixing looser, more cartoony shapes than his Alice illustrations or caricatures with the same meticulous rendering.
But staying at that low level for a moment, John Leech was, of course, responsible for one unchallengeable first: the first time the word “cartoon” was used to denote a humorous picture, rather than a preparatory drawing for a painting, fresco or tapestry. He even labelled it “Cartoon No 1”.
There’s a bit of a shaggy dog story here. It starts when Parliament burnt down in 1834. There was no Guy Fawkes to blame this time. A dry summer had turned the tally sticks – medieval wooden tax returns – stored in the basement into perfect kindling. A stray spark set it all burning.
As the new Palace of Westminster was being built (the one still used by Parliament today), paintings and frescos were commissioned to decorate it. The cartoons – in the old sense of preparatory drawings – were put on display. The magazine Punch thought that there were better uses for the government’s money than spending it on art for the rulers. At the time, the humorous drawings that appeared in Punch were called “cuts”, short for “woodcuts”, from the printing technique. A full page was given over to “the Big Cut”, the principal satirical picture of the issue, and John Leech was the artist designated to draw it. This is what he came up with for the issue dated 15 July 1843.
There were five more numbered “cartoons” in this sequence, and by the end of it, Punch’s staff had renamed “the Big Cut” as “the Cartoon”. The name soon spread to the other humorous cuts, though the earlier term was still common enough in 1890 for Alfred Harmsworth to name one of his new ha’penny picture-story papers Comic Cuts.
The Cartoon – with the definite article and a capital “C” – was a fixture of Punch for the next 150 years. Among Leech’s successors on the Cartoon was that same John Tenniel who drew Mr Peter Piper. When I first read Punch in the 1970s, the Cartoon was the responsibility of Trog, who also drew the comic strip Flook in the Daily Mail and a weekly political cartoon in The Observer. Trog was the pen name of jazz musician Wally Fawkes.
So at least one Fawkes prospered from the destruction of Parliament.
You may now groan.
Ally Sloper “Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount” by Charles Ross and Marie Duval, Judy, 1867, reprinted in Ally Sloper: A Moral Lesson, 1873, and taken here from the Early Comics Archive, which reproduces the full strip and many more.
“How Mr Peter Piper Was Induced to Join in a Bear-hunt” by John Tenniel, 1853, taken from the Early Comics Archive, which reproduces the full strip.
John Leech “Cartoon No 1”, Punch, 15 July 1843, reprinted in William Hewison The Cartoon Connection: The Art of Pictorial Humour, Elm Tree Books, 1977
Self-portrait with Flook by Wally “Trog” Fawkes, from the Camden New Journal report of his retirement